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Column: Instruction, testing must mesh

By Karen C. Lilly-Bowyer

For the Salisbury Post

As a former Rowan-Salisbury Schools employee, I have read with interest the comments and concerns that face our local school system. It is far too easy to blame the state’s testing system and NCLB for the problems. Don’t be fooled into blaming the test.

Unlike most states, North Carolina creates its own End of Grade and End of Course tests. Most states leave that task to large corporations. North Carolina’s tests are designed specifically to measure the North Carolina Standard Course of Study, and by law, 60 percent or more of the test questions must be written by practicing North Carolina teachers. I have been privileged to participate on numerous levels of the state’s test creation process during the past five years. The state’s tests are high quality. They measure students’ academic growth and the development of higher order thinking skills.

The Department of Public Instruction provides a wealth of information about the tests and their design. Anyone can visit the Accountability page of the department’s Web site (www.ncpublicschools.org) and see what is tested and look at test samples. Sample tests, as well as an explanation for the types of questions used, are readily available. With all of this information available, why are many of our students low performing? The answer is obvious. Instruction and testing do not match.

In many cases instruction does not target the objectives of the Standard Course of Study. For example, students in grades 3-8 are tested on reading comprehension. Yes, we have social studies teachers and science teachers and language arts teachers; however, all teachers must see themselves as reading teachers. Literacy is the key. An examination of the state’s 3-8 math tests, and all high school End of Course tests, will show that students must be able to read and comprehend at high levels to be successful.

Several years ago, 30 contact hours in reading instruction were added to the list of requirements for certification renewal for elementary and middle school teachers, regardless of their area of academic specialty. I am sure quality staff development was made available for the RSS teachers, but staff development without follow up is rarely effective. Is reading instruction a routine part of every RSS student’s daily activities? The state recommends 60/60/90. That means 60 minutes of reading, 60 minutes of writing and 90 minutes of math every day in reasonable uninterrupted segments of time. Are we in compliance?

Research has shown that students’ scores on high-stakes tests like our state’s EOGs and EOCs improve significantly when quality formative assessments such as local benchmark tests are in place. Formative assessments give students and teachers an opportunity to see where they are on the road to mastery. When used properly, the data gleaned from assessments can be used to provide direction for instruction. When students become actively involved in the process, motivation to learn is positively impacted.

Our previous school system leadership team was not interested in providing this type of guidance. When school systems statewide were initiating benchmark testing, RSS instructional leadership was discouraging the use of local formative assessments.

What a shame. I remember when many of our middle school principals wanted local assessments but were discouraged from using the tests that were made available for them.

I firmly believe that Dr. Judy Grissom has put RSS back on the road to student success. Quality staff development designed to improve teachers’ understanding of the goals of the North Carolina Standard Course of Study and the development of quality local benchmark tests which reflect the goals and purpose of the state EOGs and EOCs are very positive steps. Additionally, staff development must have follow up, and data from benchmarks must be understood and used by both teachers and central office personnel.

RSS is in for a bumpy ride over the next few years, but with strong leadership the goals will be reached. All RSS students will receive quality instruction designed to prepare them for a brighter future.

* * *

Karen C. Lilly-Bowyer is program manager for local assessment for Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools.

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